How Land O’Lakes convinced farmers to use AI-‘They are entrepreneurs at heart’

Beyond the technical challenges of incorporating artificial intelligence into their internal systems, companies face another difficulty: how to get employees to buy into the changes that AI can make.

on luckThe Brainstorm AI conference in San Francisco on Monday, Teddy Bekele, CTO of the agricultural cooperative Land O’Lakes, and Fiona Tan, CTO of the online furniture retailer Wayfair LLC, compares and contrasts how their companies’ workers have embraced — or raised eyebrows at — efforts to introduce AI into the supply chain.

Land O’Lakes uses AI to estimate the supply and demand of different products at different times of the year. Technology has become a tool that farmers directly use in the company. Farmers see it as aiding their decisions, not replacing their expertise, Bekele said. But getting farmers fully on board will take some convincing, he said, because planting and harvesting are high-stakes decisions. “Farmers always try things, they are entrepreneurs at heart,” Bekele explained. “However, in order to fully adopt it in their operation, they want to make sure that the solution actually works.”

Some AI models may seem hostile to farmers at first. Bekele gave the example of using AI models to determine the best locations to plant crops based on climate, topography, and soil. Sometimes, AI’s suggestion is different from what farmers have planted before. “On paper, [the A.I. model] it doesn’t seem right,” said Bekele. But with some explanation, the farmers came up with the idea.

AI can also serve as a kind of second opinion for farmers. They input their own data into AI tools and use the system to confirm their own instincts.

Wayfair is a digitally-native company so its employees are relatively open to adopting new tech, but Tan says a tech-savvy workforce may be frustrated that AI doesn’t work faster . “Sometimes there is an impatience for models to act quickly,” Tan said. “It’s not like it’s deployed now and it’s all going to work magically,” he said.

When Wayfair added AI to internal processes, it started with low-stakes tasks to reduce the risk of errors and ensure that people still check the technology’s work, Tan said. “For example, in marketing, the worst that can happen is that you pay too much for a bid, so that’s something we can tolerate,” he said. “But other areas, such as looking at images or text for the product to determine the quality of the furniture, we have models that will give a suggestion or recommendation, and people can go back and make sure that it looks good,” he said.

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